PENTAGON has been working ridiculously hard since their debut in October of last year. The 10-member rookie group has already put out 4 mini albums, and at least 4 members have been busy with solo and collab activities over the length of 2017. I can’t imagine that they’re not exhausted, but even so, they have come back with an excellent self-produced and self-composed mini-album, “DEMO_01.” Title track “Like This,” a somber change from their previous titles’ bright and jazzy concept, features some light future bass and a surprisingly sweet melody. The production is simple, which surprised me because it’s quite a departure from Cube’s habitual style, from PENTAGON’s past releases, and from, well, K-pop in general.
There are a lot of things I love about “Like This,” such as the composition (and guess who composed it? Our very own leader and main vocal, Hui, who—fun fact—also composed Wanna One’s “Never” and “Energetic”). But it was the song’s buttery-smooth dynamics that especially stood out to me. “Like This” rises and falls gently, surprisingly gently, and without ever losing the momentum it’s accumulating. There’s no wild drop or speed-of-light rap to inject the song with a shot of energy. Instead, drama builds piece by piece: in the verses that make you stop what you’re doing and be still so you can listen closely; in the tide of the chorus as it’s pulling in and out; and in the “I’m running, I’m running, baby” bridge that feels like you’re on tiptoes looking over the edge of a cliff. It’s a beautifully level structure that maintains tension despite the overall symmetry.
It’s not just the rhythm and production doing the heavy lifting here. The members’ voices, too, make a huge contribution to the dynamics. I’m not just talking about the mains’ spectacular use of range and control to bring internal drama to the lines themselves, but the placement of everyone’s voices from subvocal to rap. Let’s talk, for example, about lead dancer Kino starting the song. There’s nothing particularly technically great about Kino’s vocal. That’s not to say that Kino can’t sing—Kino certainly can sing, and it’s a sound I love to hear. But it’s a sound that doesn’t call attention to itself: it’s subtle, almost sympathetic, easing you in. When main vocal Hui comes in a sort while after, the tension of the song bumps up a level purely by virtue of his astonishing vocal talent. In that moment, the dynamic builds without the instrumental changing. Other moments such Wooseok’s part, where he toys with the distinction between rap and singing, keep the song moving forward even over a static instrumental.
Oh, and here’s yet another thing this song has going for it: the lyrics. Take, for example, the opening: “Every day and every night, in the midst of time that’s flowing by, a single shadow stays still: what is it looking at?” That’s a shockingly gorgeous line. Who knew we’d find it in a song by K-pop rookies? Few K-pop tracks have made me wish that my Korean was better so I could understand the words. “Like This,” however, tackles the tired theme of overcoming hardship in a thrillingly fresh way, with graceful phrasing and a touch of individual perspective. The lyrics are relevant (“The more I hold it in, the bigger a thorn it becomes”) as well as uplifting (“Even if I fall and my knees bleed, I will never stop running like this”), without ever falling into clichés (well, okay, maybe that “growing flower” motif is a little worn, but PENTAGON took it new places—I mean, E’Dawn even brought a bee into the metaphor). One of the most compelling elements of the story is the unspecified “you,” who appears only a few times: once to ask for protection, and in the prechorus to say, “I put my faith in you and go on my way. I hope you wait for the real me.” The presence of another character besides the speaker has a narrative effect, giving the song a sense of uniqueness without including so many details that it loses its relatability. However, the additional character is mentioned rarely, allowing the song to focus on the theme of the self rather than on a relationship. It’s beautiful, and you’ve got to listen to the song while reading a translation to appreciate just how beautiful it actually is.
There was one thing about “Like This” that I didn’t love as much as I wanted to: E’Dawn’s rap section. E’Dawn’s voice is my personal favorite out of PENTAGON’s three rappers, and my problem wasn’t with his performance but with its placement in the song. To be honest, I really love his part—the way it goes off, the brief incorporation of Hui’s voice—but at the end of the day, it was too lit. It didn’t fit in with the poignancy of the rest of the song. In fact, there’s absolutely no effort to blend it in or out, no transition whatsoever, which would suggest that Cube made E’Dawn’s part stand out on purpose at the cost of risking the song’s cohesiveness (Cube loves both him and Hui, and has been promoting them through HyunA or other avenues for years now—maybe it was concentrated effort to make them catch viewers’ eyes during the MV? Conspiracy theory anyone???), or alternatively that Cube was trying to cover too many styles in one song because they’re afraid that PENTAGON is losing ground to other rising rookies like SF9 and ASTRO. That’s also possible, given that we do get some style mixing in the chorus, which combines the echoing “oh-oh-oh”s of an anthemic rock ballad with a purely electronic instrumental (and does it beautifully). Regardless, I would have loved to see E’Dawn take a break from the high-energy rap he always brings to title tracks and instead show off his more relaxed and introspective style, of which we already know he’s absolutely capable (if you’re thinking “??” right now, give a listen to the outstanding “Organic Song” from PENTAGON’s first mini album, which E’Dawn wrote himself).
As for the rest of the album, I was impressed, as is usual with PENTAGON. “It’s Over” was, I’ll admit, a little slow with that uninspired chorus, but the spectacular vocal moment (listen—you’ll know the one) fully made up for it. “One More Night” sounds like it wrote the book on how to make an excellent, if cookie-cutter, tropical pop song. I was a little doubtful of “Get That Drink” at first, but the bassline brought me on board. And “When I Was In Love”—wow. I mean, wow. The chorus is just sublime, with atypical R&B chords and enlightening vocals. Seriously, I can’t recommend this song enough.
With melancholy tracks outnumbering the happy ones, “DEMO_01” feels significantly more serious and even mature than past releases. The change is even reflected in the album cover, which has swapped the old pentagon logo for a moody photo of the members where you can hardly see their faces. But the concept switch does not feel abrupt or forced. Rather, “DEMO_01” feels like the natural next step for PENTAGON, one that I’m sure will take them down a path to more great music in the near future.
LIKE THIS: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? As bop as bops get.
Take a look at PENTAGON’s “Like This” MV below: